Echoes of a Nervous Breakdown: Music and Spoken Word

Just back from a great performance at “the Echo” club in Echo Park. I’ve never considered myself a big fan of spoken word performance, but lately find myself repeatedly wowed by performers in this genre – and it’s “National Poetry Month.” If you inexplicably find yourself speaking in rhyme, you’ll know why. Mention of poetry brings something like Emily Dickenson to mind; NOT my speed, even if I used to hang out near her museum-home and party on the lawn.

Rich Ferguson is the antidote to every silly fluffy rhyme in poetry. Rich is like the energy that rushes through you when you get off the bus at Port Authority in NYC and find yourself running down the sidewalk barely noticing all the grime and dirt around you, wondering if the guy at the corner up ahead is gonna mug you, and then you look up and notice there are palm trees and you’re in LA; there are gang-bangers on one side of you, a police car on the other side, you’re not sure which to look out for, and suddenly in the midst of that, it suddenly occurs to you what a dazzlingly beautiful day it is. His sidemen were the perfect complement to his high energy trance-like rants; his drummer Butch, currently playing with Lucinda Williams and co-founder of the Eels, knocked out some solid kick-butt grooves and carried another number off with a small hand drum that he played almost like a tabla; the keyboardist Edan Mason created some amazing soundscapes with a bunch of small boxes and vocal controllers, at times evoking pitched digeridoo sounds from his keyboard. Collectively, the group is called “Qualia.” Wikipedia reports: “Believers in qualia are known as qualophiles; non-believers as qualophobes.”

1 Giant Leap  (2019 update: The full film seems available on YouTube now, embedded above)

Rich first came to my attention in the amazing “What About Me? 1 Giant Leap” project.
(2019 update: the website for the project is gone now, but info is on Wikipedia, IMDB, and you can purchase the CDs on Amazon.)

English musicians Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman recorded a bunch of tracks on a laptop computer, and travelled the globe adding the talents of a variety of musicians in Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, India, Nepal, Sikkim, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

Among the artists were Dennis Hopper, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Stipe, Robbie Williams, Eddi Reader, Tom Robbins, Brian Eno, Baaba Maal, Speech, Asha Bhosle, Neneh Cherry, Anita Roddick, Michael Franti, and Zap Mama.

Musical tracks were intercut with interviews about life and spirituality in all the cultures they visited; the theme was “Unity Through Diversity.” The seamless audio-visual montage was breathtaking and inspiring. People call it a documentary, but it’s more progressive than most films in that genre. At a screening in Topanga Canyon, Rich performed and I first met him there.

Here’s one of the tracks from that show:

RichFerguson: Los Angeles Book of the Dead

The Echo Park show was presented by “The Nervous Breakdown,” an online culture magazine featuring the work of writers and artists from around the world.

Author Janet Fitch, best known for “White Oleander,” read from a punk rock novel set in Echo Park in 1980. Steve Abee, a poet and local teacher, recited a piercing intonation of a selection from his book of poems, “Great Balls of Flowers,” inspired by a student whose parents had both committed suicide. Poet Ellyn Maybe – whose name originated because she was shy at poetry readings and often wrote “maybe reading” next to her name – presented a work from her “The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.” Each reading closed with a series of questions from the co-hosts Milo Martin and Lenore Zion such as, “Toilet paper: folded or scrunched up?” (“Never have time to fold it. Scrunched definitely.”) The co-hosts also presented some ruminations regarding genetic capability in asparagus urine odor detection. The show opened and closed with performances by “50 Cent Haircut” – a blues/rock/country hybrid with some great guitar players.

Tongue and Groove at the Hotel Cafe
If spoken word events are your cup of tea, you definitely want to check out Conrad Romo’s monthly “Tongue and Groove” event at the Hotel Café in Hollywood. Past events have featured a bevy of exceptionally moving talented authors and musicians.
The next one is apparently April 25th, from 6-7:30PM, featuring PEN Emerging writers Monica Carter, Natashia Deon, Lorene Garrett, Simone Kang, and Bev Margennis. Check with the Hotel Café before attending though; some of the website postings are out-of-date and the café calendar stops on the 24th. Or call Conrad: 323.937.0136.

Veronika Krausas / LA Sonic Odyssey

“I have a ping-pong ball in my stomach,” declared the young girl. Her sister responded, “I ate my gerbil floating in the Atlantic.” They giggled, and noticed me eavesdropping. “We’re making random sentences,” they explained. Their father laughed along with them as we waited for the intermission to end. They had just finished enthusiastic air-drumming performances inspired by the drummer who had finished a performance by thrusting his drum stick through the head of his drum. The concert wasn’t a Who revival, but a performance of the works of composer Veronika Krausas at USC.

University faculty performances are, in my opinion, the hidden secret of the music world. The caliber of the music aside, where else in LA can you see men in tweed jackets and red bow ties who aren’t playing a role in a period movie?  Many of LA’s top contemporary musicians were in attendance at this performance, which partnered the musicians with projected photography, actors, and gymnasts.

Many of the works had Canadian themes, reflecting the composer’s birthplace. Four of the works were set to texts by Canadian writer Andre Alexis. Photography by Canadian Thaddeus Holownia and American James Jacobson accompanied two of the works.

Veronika Krausas

Krausas is a pre-concert lecturer for the LA Philharmonic at Disney Hall, and she interviews composers before the consistently astounding “Green Umbrella” contemporary music series there. She is on the composition faculty at USC.

The opening work, “from easter,” was purportedly structured as an English mass – but described as a rural Ontario community that sacrifices children to ensure a good harvest! It began with a percussionist Nick Terry smashing glasses into a trash can, transitioned into textural vibraphone and woodblock ostinatos melded together with french horn and bass, and featured an operatic interpretation by mezzo soprano Debra Penberthy. Marc Lowenstein conducted the ensembles throughout the evening.

In “wilderness,” an actor in a lumberjack-like costume performed texts describing  a woman’s dreams; immigrating to Canada and being required to wear a porcupine if she wished to enter the country and didn’t have her papers (“an erotic dream”). It Featured a remarkable performance by Kristy Morrell on french horn, whom I later discovered to be related to the children I met at intermission.

“Five intermezzi for Snaredrum,” opened with the performer reciting poems while playing his drum, calling to mind a piece for solo double bass called “Failing,” in which the performer’s talent is taxed to the breaking point, requiring virtuoso playing and attention to the simultaneous spoken text; in “Failing” the expectation is that the bassist will fail to perform what is asked of him, and although that intention wasn’t an element here, the challenge still was. The recited poems included works by Kandinsky, ee cummings, Gwendolyn MacEwan, and Robert Lax. In the middle section of 5 intermezzi, the drummer performed an air drum solo as he vocalized the sounds of the drums. His final thrilling solo, again with recitation, used the real snare drum again and ended as he pierced the head of the drum with a drum stick, rousing the classical audience with hoots, hollers, and applause – and inspiring imitation by the children and adults in the audience during intermission.

“Stone,” followed the intermission, with gymnast Colin Follenweider, dancer Bianca Sapetto, narration by author André Alexis, and beret-clad acoustic-bassist-supreme Dennis Trembly. The stage was filled with strings of lights suspended by helium balloons. As the performers danced with the balloons, their movement mimicked the sliding plucked glissandos of the bassist, as the balloons lifted the strings of lights up into the air. The bassist transitioned into a long bowed solo, heralding an implied distant threat, (bringing to mind Tom Waits comment of his own bassist, “somebody’s been keeping him chained up somewhere…”) and lead into poetic commentary, awe-inspiring inverted splits by the dancers, and final percussive punctuations of the balloons being popped by the dancers.

Krausas has composed many works featuring under-appreciated members of the orchestral family. Her solo CD includes a work for the frequent object of musicians jokes, the viola, and another work featuring bassoon. Her writing for the bass was virtuosic, and Trembly rose to the challenge.

The final piece, “mnemosyne,” was for clarinet/bass clarinet, percussion, horn, and acoustic bass, and included projected images of toys, food, and text. At this point I began to wonder if the children ahead of me had written the text; “We have not seen earth in so long our constitutions were changing” “In January, father was poisoned.” “In March we ate our dog.” Then the less poetic, “DVD Player has encountered an error it cannot recover from.” The tech team did their best to bring the visuals back to life before the piece ended while the audience’s attention became completely focused on the musicians. A driving duet between the bass and drums ensued, amidst noises of crinkled sheet music, whispers, and intermittent recitations of the same texts by the performers.

Composer Morton Subotnick and choreographer Christine Lawson have complained that in many cases multimedia performances suffer from an imbalance; one element is a complete work and the other is simply layered onto the perfected composition, but Krausas seemed to achieve a well integrated and balanced partnership between all the elements of her works.

I passed through audience members waiting in the lobby to greet and praise the performers, emerging from the Newman Concert hall onto the sparsely populated Sunday evening USC campus, spectacularly lit by a full moon. The horn player emerged and warmly greeted the children and father I’d befriended, then I bid them adieu and headed home. Krausas is a composer to look out for.

An interesting interview with the composer is featured on Dorka Keehn’s wonderful “Keehn on Art” podcasts. It discusses a composition she wrote based upon the numerical codes used by perfumers to identify fragrances.



LA Sonic Odyssey
For those of you who are interested in electronic music, tonight and tomorrow LA Sonic Odyssey is presenting a concert of works at 8:00 PM at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church, 301 Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91103 ($20) These concerts feature rarely heard electronic music composers, exceptional musicians, and a multi-channel live mix. The exceptional pianist Mike Lang will be performing at these shows, which include works by founder Jennifer Logan, Curtis Roads, Christian Eloy, and Carl Stone